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Alberta Diary

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David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. His 1995 book, A Poke in the Public Eye, explores the relationships among Canadian journalists, public relations people and politicians. He left journalism after the strike at the Calgary Herald in 1999 and 2000 to work for the trade union movement. Alberta Diary focuses on Alberta politics and social issues.

Ethical Oil charity complaint sparks Alberta corporate complaint

| August 14, 2012
Tony Clark

As is well known, the "Ethical Oil Institute," the Edmonton-based organization founded by Sun News Network commentator Ezra Levant to support petroleum extraction companies in Alberta, has complained to the Canada Revenue Agency demanding the charitable status of Tides Canada "be reviewed for violating Canada’s charities law."

Last week, Ethical Oil accused the Vancouver-based environmental and social issues charity of "'laundering' money from contributors to groups engaged in 'non-charitable' political activities," as the complaint was summarized by the Edmonton Journal.

Ethical Oil also set up an automated online form to enable those who share Levant's and his organization's views to send emails to National Revenue Minister Gail Shea "to report any radical or environmental lobby group you’ve seen masquerading as a charity so that their taxpayers (sic) subsidy comes to an end!"

Now an Edmonton researcher has filed a complaint with Service Alberta Minister Manmeet Bhullar arguing that by taking this action Ethical Oil is violating its Memorandum of Association with the with the Alberta government.

"Corporate entities such as Ethical Oil are bound by the Companies Act to follow the objects set in their Memorandum of Association," researcher Tony Clark wrote Bhullar last week. "Ethical Oil has mounted a protracted campaign against what it views as violations of the Canada Revenue Agency's rules by certain environmentally oriented charities. I believe this campaign is against the letter, if not the spirit, of the corporation's Memorandum of Association which regulates its external activities."

Citing statements made by Ethical Oil on its website, before a House of Commons committee, in the mainstream media, in a 143-page letter of complaint to the CRA and on a Sun News Network television program hosted by Levant, Clark argues there is nothing in Ethical Oil's Memorandum of Association "that allows this corporation to be a referee on charities' activities."

On his Sun News Network program, Levant -- who is president, treasurer and a director of Ethical Oil and holds 50 per cent of the corporate entity's shares -- interviewed Ethical Oil Executive Director Jamie Ellerton about the campaign against Tides Canada's charitable status. On this episode of The Source with Ezra Levant, Levant set aside his trademark aggressive interview style and was positively warm.

Regardless, Clark's complaint goes on, "The objects of the corporation include, among other things, 'issues and considerations of environmental responsibility, peace, treatment of workers, democratic rights, and human rights.' There is no mention whatsoever in Ethical Oil's foundational documents of this corporation being used as an overseer of the Canada Revenue Agency's rules on charities.

"I do note, however, that Ethic Oil's Memorandum of Association, article 5, specifically states (emphasis added), '[t]he income and property of the Company, however derived and received, shall be applied solely towards the promotion of the objects of the Company…'," Clark writes.

"The key word in the sentence above, Hon. Minister, is 'solely.' Given the scale and scope of Ethical Oil's campaign against a few environmentalist charities, I think it is undeniable that Ethical Oil is using its resources in contravention of its objects as set out in its Memorandum of Association," he argues.

"I urge you to use your powers as the minister responsible for the Companies Act to investigate Ethical Oil's activities and penalize the corporation to the fullest extent of the law if you find it has violated the Act," Clark concludes.

Meanwhile, it is hard to predict the outcome of Ethical Oil's complaints against Tides Canada and other environmental charities.

On one hand, Prime Minister Stephen Harper would clearly like to suppress the activities of charitable organizations that do not march in lockstep with his Conservative Party's environmental policies. On the other, many other charitable organizations with which Harper is both broadly in agreement and whose work he values are clearly in violation of the CRA's regulations about political activities.

So on the theory the rule of law still prevails in Canada, it is hard to see how what is good for the charitable goose mustn’t also be good for the charitable gander, an outcome with which the prime minister may be uncomfortable.

One of the most glaring examples, as is well known, is the Vancouver-based market-fundamentalist propaganda organization known as the Fraser Institute, which continues to be permitted to operate as a charity despite blatantly and consistently ignoring the CRA's limits on political activities.

In January 2012, Clark wrote Shea arguing that the Fraser Institute engages in excessive political activities and requesting that the CRA investigate its activities and revoke its charitable status.

Shea responded with a letter that ran to two pages, but contained remarkably little information. She did note that "the confidentiality provisions of the Income Tax Act prevent me from discussing the tax affairs of any particular organization without written consent from an authorized representative of that organization."

Shea did observe in her letter to Clark that "a charity's political activities must be reported on its annual form T3010-1, Registered Charity Information Return."

As Clark noted in an Alberta Federation of Labour submission to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance and Tax Incentives for Charitable Organizations on Jan. 17, 2012, each year between 2000 and 2010 the Fraser Institute responded "no" to the CRA's question "Did the charity carry on any political activities during the fiscal period?"

As the AFL submission observed: "Any rookie observer of Canadian politics knows this is nonsense: the Fraser Institute is actively involved in the Canadian political landscape. Any reporting or suggestion otherwise is a sham."

Shea also told Clark that "a charity whose object includes the advancement of education must take care not to disregard the boundary between education and propaganda. To be considered charitable, an educational activity must be reasonably objective and based on a well-reasoned position, that is, a position based on factual information analyzed methodically, objectively, fully, and fairly. In addition, a well-reasoned position should present serious arguments and relevant facts to the contrary."

The flawed approach to "research" taken by the Fraser Institute is well known and aptly deconstructed by Saskatoon health policy consultant Stephen Lewis, who wrote in 2011 that the organization's research in his field was "fatally flawed," based on a methodology that is "essentially absurd," uses respondents' hunches and opinions rather than real data, relies on unrepresentative samples of self-interested respondents and produces only "sortafacts" that support its market-fundamentalist ideological position.

Or, as Nova Scotia Finance Minister Graham Steele put it more bluntly: "The Fraser Institute produces junk. It is not a serious institution. It is a political organization."

Since Canada remains a country of laws, surely we can assume that Levant’s Ethical Oil Institute will receive a similar response from Shea.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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